If low prices, good food, and a fabulous ambiance is more important to you than ski-in/ski-out convenience, snow sure resorts and cutting-edge instruction, then Italy is the place for you.
As a destination it's much more laid back than its rivals in France, Switzerland and Austria, with the holiday emphasis on fun and relaxation rather than sporting excellence. As a result, the enjoyment factor is all the higher. Families with young children are welcomed even in the most chic hotels and restaurants.
The in-resort cost of holidays in Italy is markedly lower than in any of its mainstream rivals. Forget Eastern Europe and even Andorra - as a budget destination the range and variety of slopes, coupled with outstanding scenery puts Italy in a league of its own.
Italy is also blessed with a number of giant ski areas. For beautiful scenery and variety of terrain, none of them rival the central core of the Dolomites. The Dolomiti Superski lift pass covers 12 ski areas and a mighty 1220km of pistes linked by 450 lifts, plus the occasional bus ride. Included on this pass is the famous Sella Ronda – a circular network of lifts and pistes around the Gruppo del Sella, a majestic limestone massif, taking in several resorts.
During the 2013/14 seasons, Italy also attracted some of the best snow in Europe. In January, when cover in the Tirol was what the Austrians call “mouse-ankle deep”, the Italian Sudtirol just 80km from Innsbruck was wallowing in three meters of the stuff.
It must be stated that over the past decades, cover hasn't been as reliable as the Italians would have liked. However, their snowmaking is some of the best in Europe and, even in the driest winter, conditions on piste have still been good.
Best for beginners: Passo Tonale
This compact, value-for-money village lies at 1880m, with lifts going up to 3088m. It's one of the few Italian resorts to be snow sure from late October to early May, which is why Italian national teams train here. The marked runs are mainly suited to beginners and intermediates, and Passo Tonale is also linked by lift to the slopes of Ponte di Legno, which offer advanced riders more challenges. Both areas are covered on the Adamello lift pass.
However, the overriding reason for a visit is the gentle open slopes that form a near-perfect nursery area for learning to snow plough and gaining confidence, without the threat of more accomplished slope users whizzing scarily by. There are two ski and snowboard schools and Tonale Presena has friendly, English-speaking instructors and the standard of teaching is high.
The resort was developed mainly to service the slopes, with a road running through the middle, and features predominantly chalet-style buildings. It's generally quiet during the week, but comes to life during the Italian holidays and at weekends.
Be sure to have a meal at La Mirandola hotel, situated just above the main resort. It dates back to the 12th century, and the restaurant has a vaulted stone ceiling, oodles of atmosphere and can be reached in the evening by snowmobile.
Where to stay: for a warm welcome and friendly service, the three-star, family-run Hotel Adamello is hard to beat; good food, including a Trentino-themed gala buffet, is served and there's also a children's games room.
Alternatives: Bardonecchia and Madesimo are both non-commercial resorts much loved by Italians. Each has easy, uncrowded slopes that are ideal for learning.
Best for intermediates: Corvara
The lively and family-friendly village of Corvara, along with neighboring San Cassiano, which is smaller and quieter, is situated at the crossroads of two huge intermediate playgrounds. The local Alta Badia ski area gives easy access to the Sella Ronda circuit, and both are rich in cruisy, confidence-boosting red runs that are usually well groomed. They're also home to some delightful mountain restaurants.
Each day you can venture as far afield as you dare before turning for home and ensuring you have time to catch the last lift. At sunset, the cliffs and crags of the Dolomites turn an extraordinarily vibrant shade of pink. The panorama is so enchanting that your eyes are perpetually drawn to the skyline, and sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on the snow at your feet.
There is a clutch of highly regarded luxury hotels here. The four-star La Perla in Corvara offers superb food and service in a relaxed atmosphere and features a spectacular, extensive wine cellar, while the four-star Posta Zirm is famed for its fine cuisine and feng shui-inspired spa. Meanwhile, in San Cassiano, the five-star Rosa Alpina has individually designed rooms and boasts two top-class restaurants, including the two Michelin-star St Hubertus.
Where to stay: with a strong reputation for good food and a homely atmosphere, Corvara’s three-star Hotel La Plaza is a sound choice, and great value for money. This family-run hotel has attractive rooms, as well as a small spa.
Alternatives: Kronplatz in the Sudtirol has an extraordinarily high proportion of gondolas among its 32 lifts, with 21 in total. These give access to 116km of mainly intermediate slopes, with plenty of wide-open red and blue runs. La Thuile in the Aosta Valley offers a wealth of gentle reds and blues, and is linked to La Rosière in France, where more challenging reds await.
Best for advanced: Alagna
This picturesque little village – complete with stone churches and attractive old wooden farmhouses – in the giant Monterosa ski area has a cult following among powder hounds. Away from the limited local pistes, glorious snowfields provide endless entertainment and tough challenges for experts; In fact, some claim the backcountry terrain here rivals that of Chamonix, in France.
It’s not a place for beginners though, or anyone interested in any form of nightlife – lights out comes almost directly after dinner. But if you're going to make the most of the off piste, you’ll need all the sleep you can get.
Alagna itself has only 15km of pistes, but it's linked to the more intermediate-minded resorts of Gressoney and Champoluc – all covered on the Monterosa Ski lift pass and offering 73km of runs. However, it's best to stay in Alagna if you've come for the off piste.
The village is situated at 1,212m from where lifts take you up to a heady 3,275m, starting point for some dramatic free riding. You’ll need expert help, and should hire the services of a mountain guide to explore this terrain.
Where to stay: Zimmer Casa Prati is a beautifully restored farmhouse in a prime location just uphill from the main lift. It offers friendly hospitality and comfortable rooms featuring traditional wood and stone.
Alternatives: Arabba is on the mainly intermediate Sella Ronda circuit, but is also a convenient base from which to explore the most challenging slopes, accessed by the Passo Pordoi cable car CK. The pistes here are some of the steepest in the Dolomites and include some spectacular off-piste routes. Cortina d’Ampezzo also has some challenging black runs, tough couloirs and serious off-piste runs.
Best for charm and romance: Cortina d’Ampezzo
Italy’s chicest destination is an ancient mountain town in the Dolomites surrounded by soaring cathedrals of sandstone. A green and white bell tower and a glittering confection of grand 19th century mansions dominate the centre.
Despite being variously occupied over the centuries by foreign invaders, including Austria and even the Americans in 1945, Cortina has stubbornly maintained a spiritual independence of its own. While the residents of surrounding towns and villages primarily speak Italian or German, native Cortinese clings to their ancient Ladin language to converse among themselves.
Cortina's 115km of marked slopes (covered on the local lift pass) are divided into separate areas, and best suit intermediates and experts. There is a handful of tricky black runs, plus countless off-piste opportunities in good snow conditions. It's connected via a bus ride into Sella Ronda circuit (all covered on the Dolomiti Superski pass). The free bus takes you to Passo Falzarego and the cable car up to the 2,788m summit of Lagazuoi. From here you head down the Hidden Valley to the hamlet of Armentarola and on to San Cassiano and the rest of the circuit.
In Cortina itself, the business of skiing and snowboarding plays second fiddle to the social sport of seeing and being seen outside and inside the elegant boutiques and antique shops lining the Corso Italia, the pedestrianised main street.
Encroaching twilight is the signal for Cortina to come out and play. A colony of voluminous fur coats and designer ski wear gathers noisily in the Piazza Venezia at the start of the evening passeggiata. Much later, the party atmosphere is transferred to intimate wine bars, expensive restaurants, and a smattering of softly lit nightclubs.
Where to stay: the four-star Hotel Ancora, with its traditional wooden balconies and painted frescoes, has been in the same family for four generations, and is in a superb location in the heart of the pedestrian area. It serves some of the finest cuisine in town, while the rooms are tastefully decorated and filled with fine antiques.
Alternatives: the market town of Ortisei in the Val Gardena is packed with charming buildings and churches and is surrounded my majestic peaks. Its local slopes offer lots of relaxed cruising. The small, quiet village of San Cassiano in Alta Badia is set in an attractive, tree-lined valley and has a traditional atmosphere. It's linked to the extensive Sella Ronda circuit.
Best for partying: Sauze d’Oulx
Sauze had a reputation in the 1970s and 1980s as a sort of Magaluf with moguls, where pub was more important than piste, and many of its strong British youth following never made it on to the snow before midday. These days it has cleaned up its act. The charming Italian village that it once was is now back on form, but fortunately the party atmosphere never went away.
The village has an attractive, cobbled centre, but most of the resort is made up of modern, block-like buildings. Out of the centre, there are quieter, more secluded areas.
Sauze has some of Italy’s best pistes, with undulating terrain linking to the resorts of Sansicario, Sestriere, and across the French border to Montgenèvre and the rest of the Milky Way – a vast, linked area with 400km of pistes served by 66 lifts (covered on the Via Lattea Internazionale lift pass). The local slopes are spread out across a wooded mountainside. At the heart of these runs is Sportinia – a mid-mountain collection of restaurants, hotels and a nursery area.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on eating out and entertainment here – the prices are roughly a third of those in the premier French resorts of Courchevel and Val d’Isère. Après begins with live music at Capanna Mollino in the Sportinia area, and moves on to the Village café-bar on the home run into the resort. Other lively places to try include Ghost bar and Paddy McGinty’s pub.
If you fancy a quieter drink, try Caffe della Seggiovia or Enoteca Il Lampione, wine bars that are both popular with locals and visitors. Later on, the action moves to Moncrons bar and then to Osteria dei Vagabondi, where there's often live music, followed by Bandito nightclub. The Cotton Club attracts an older crowd and hosts jazz nights.
Where to stay: most village accommodations aren’t memorable, but the three-star Chalet Faure – a rustic mountain home that has been transformed into a boutique hotel with lots of character – in the old centre is an appealing choice. It has a small spa and in-house wine bar.
Alternatives: Madonna di Campiglio and Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites offer more sophisticated – and expensive – nightlife.
Best for families: Champoluc
The 200km Monterosa ski area is one of the most underrated in the Alps and Champoluc is a charming village, with a typically Italian laid-back atmosphere and some decent bars. The scenery is beautiful, there’s a general lack of crowds in the area, traffic is slight, and it has a British ski school.
From the village a gondola takes you up to Crest, where the beginner slopes are situated. From the nearby hamlet of Frachey, reached by free shuttle bus, a funicular gives more direct access towards Gressoney, Alagna and the rest of the Monterosa area.
Childcare is extremely limited in Italy because Italian families tend to bring along granny and grandpa to look after the little ones. Therefore, if you are travelling with small children it makes sense to choose a destination where a British tour operator provides all the necessary childcare.
A big plus point in Champoluc is the presence of a ski school run for the guests of tour operator Ski2. Instructors are a mix of British and English-speaking locals and teach children from four years old. The company also runs its own nursery with British nannies. The Italian ski school Scuola Sci Champoluc has a good reputation for teaching both adults and children too.
Where to stay: the four-star Relais des Glaciers has a pleasant spa and is located just off the main square, a seven-minute walk from the gondola or reachable by a free shuttle bus. It has a large outdoor hot tub and friendly staff who provide an early children’s dinner.
Alternatives: Esprit Ski offers childcare with British nannies at its chalet hotel neighboring Gressoney as well as in its four chalets in Selva; both resorts are family friendly.